Monday, September 18, 2017

Illyria Game Two - Against the Cult of the Reptile God!

Illyria Game Two picked up back in the waterside city of Fraus, on the northwest of Lake Laconic.  The players met Nicodemus, the thieves' guild master, at the Flying Trout on the waterfront, and gave over the relics they recovered and claimed their share.  They had also recovered an Olympian shortsword (bronze, magic +1) and gave it to their sword-and-board fighter, Tiberius.

The relics recovered from the Tomb of Gymnos included an Olympian spear and a heroic shield; the buyer was a captain of the grand army of Durus, Nikos, an ambassador to Fraus and collector.  The captain was impressed by the group and told them he could use a party of irregulars to travel south, to Fort Quintus, where an incursion of goblin and dark fey of Arcadia had appeared across the river from the fort.  "The army is occupied with other priorities, while we mobilize for our king's upcoming campaign against those who doubt his right to rule all of Illyria."

The guildmaster was also impressed with the characters, and said he needed someone with a bit of backbone, "unconcerned with getting rough and dirty hands", to go to Castra Lapis and take care of some deadbeats.  "Castra Lapis is a profitable little mining village, off the road to Durus, and I've had a few men there looking out for guild interests, running a gambling den and black market, that kind of stuff.  The guild's share has dried up, so I'm beginning to think they've gone into business for themselves, and need to be reminded who they work for.  But there's also been disturbing news from Castra Lapis.  I've heard of a few families that have recently moved away because folks have gone strange or missing.  So who knows?"

Meanwhile, an intriguing hand-written post had started to appear nailed outside the taverns frequented by mercenaries and adventurers; it read like this:

Men wanted, for hazardous exploration, small wages, terrible foes, long periods of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor, recognition, and wealth in case of success.  Report to the Adventurer's Guild Hall of Lunda to apply.

I wanted to feed the players at least three adventurous opportunities right off the bat and give them something to talk about - a good way to kick off a sandbox.  If they wanted the game to be more political and involve favors with kings and generals, they could pursue the Fort Quintus opportunity.  If they liked their friendship with the guildmaster of thieves and liked being hired muscle, they could go to Castra Lapis.  If they wanted to embark on some epic dungeon crawling, there was Lunda.  (Bonus points if any readers know where I cribbed the call to Lunda, it's really classic).

They chose the Castra Lapis idea and agreed to work for the guildmaster, figuring that Lunda would still be there, and the army story line wasn't interesting to them.

For the readers, I'll point out that I've built Illyria to be fairly generic, where I could dump my favorite adventures and hooks while learning the in's and out's of the 5E system.  Player characters are way overpowered in 5E compared to the games I usually run, and I have to recallibrate my sensitivities to figure out the best way to create adventures and encounters.  It's exacerbated by having a large group (since all of the stock advice and encounter building "advice" in the DMG is targeted at a 4-5 player party, and party size is a major variable).

The plot hook for Fort Quintus was 'Guido's Fort' from Horror on the Hill, and Castra Lapis is the site of the Cult of the Reptile God from the adventure of the same name.  (Lunda has hooks for my homebrew megadungeon, Death Mountain, and also a 3E favorite, The Sunless Citadel).

The road to Castra Lapis took them past fields where slaves toiled on farms under the gaze of mounted overseers; the Celtic war bands north of Illyria sell their defeated enemies to the slavers of Fraus to toil in Illyria's 'bread basket', the vale of Durus.  They had another unsettling encounter on the way to Castra Lapis; an old man walking on the road with a mad gleam to his eyes.  "My daughter has come back!  She visited me last night, and told me to meet her in the city".  As he waved by and walked up the road, he called back, "It destroyed me when she died last year, but now she's back - she just needs to find the right kind of body in the city!"  The players have now encountered two situations where shades have apparently returned from the vaults of Pluto and the underworld.

Since a few players had to miss this game, the group had the missing characters establish a camp outside of town so they'd have an avenue for players to drop in, drop out.  The ones that attended approached town, where they were rebuffed by the constable and his flunkies.  "You've missed the main road to Durus", he pointed out.  "Surely a gang of heavily armed mercenaries have no business in quiet little Castra Lapis?"  Queue some obligatory roleplaying, persuasion, and intimidation attempts.  (Intimidation is the kid's 'go to' skill choice, they love to make bruiser characters and trash talk at the bad guys).

They got information from the constable - the guys they were after worked out of the Golden Grain Inn, and did indeed host gambling and similar activities for the miners.  "Don't cause trouble, as we'll be just up the road and we're not afraid to call out the militia."

After doing their "I'm Batman, Where are They" voices on a few miners at the inn, the players were directed to Decimus (the thieves' guild contact) in an upstairs room.  "Snigrot is my partner, he's not back yet", drawled Decimus.  "Let's meet in an hour, at dinner, and we'll talk all about the missing payments and what's been going on here..."  Decimus was presented as a dangerous scarred loner in a saloon (Clint Eastwood with knives).

A couple of players scouted the village in the meantime while the rest waited for the meeting.  When the time came, drinks were served, and Snigrot and Decimus joined at one end of the table.  None of the players realized the drinks had slow acting sleep poisons in them.  Trash talking started, threats were made, and Mort (the group's reckless hot headed death cleric) ran across the table swinging his maul at Decimus.  Mort's legs got wobbly from the sleep poison, but he made his save.  At this point all the players realized it was a set up!

Furthermore, everyone in the inn was part of the ambush.  The dozen or so miners grabbed clubs, knives, or bottles.  A miner barred the front door so no one could get out.  The bartender swung a bat from behind the bar, clubbing the half orc barbarian.  (It just made the barbarian angry).  The only player that completely missed his poison save was Shae the Gnome Sorceror, so he took a nap.  Mort dueled Decimus, and eventually connected with Inflict Wounds (a hideous damage spell).  Brax cast thunderwave at a bunch of the miners, rocking the inn and shattering glasses and windows.  Rasp dueled with Snigrot.

The miners were basically mooks, easy to take out by player characters, so the fight ended quickly once Decimus and Snigrot fell.  The thunderwave alerted the constable, who was calling for the militia out in the streets.  Baruch, the bartender, was taken prisoner and gagged by the players, while a few characters quickly looted Decimus's room upstairs for ill-gotten gains.  They escaped out the back of the inn before the constable returned, using their druid's skills to cover their tracks and guide them to camp.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Illyria, First Game Session!

I've run four games in my Illyria setting for 5E Dungeons & Dragons.  Illyria is a generic high fantasy setting built to make it easy to plug in any kind of modules or premade adventures I like, while I get more drive time with 5E.  Illyria includes themes from Greco-Roman mythology; the stories of Jupiter and Mars and Saturn form the folklore, nurse tales, and cultural heritage for the peoples of Illyria.

The first game session started in media res to thrust the players right into some action.  They stood around a circular shaft on the wild far shores of Lake Laconic.  The directions from the merchant Nicodemus in Fraus were accurate, and the characters had located the remote site where the tomb entrance lay forgotten and lost.

The players weren't the first adventurers to the site.  A rope stretched over the side of the shaft and dropped into the darkness.  There was an abandoned skiff back on the shore, and the remains of a camp only a few days old.

Here's the cast of characters for the Illyria campaign:

Mort the Death Cleric (Logan)
Xenobrax the Half-Elf Sorcerer (Zach)
Rasp the Elf Rogue (Bo)
Shaen├Ęsi the Deep-Gnome Shadow Sorcerer (Jeff)
Gromorg the Half-Orc Barbarian (Adam)
Caliban, Tiefling Druid (Owen)
Tank Stoneballz, Dwarf Forge-Priest (Mike)

I wrote the tomb adventure (The Tomb of Gymnos) to take about 4 hours and introduce themes of the campaign.  Another adventurer group was hired by Nicodemus (the player's patron) several days ahead of them, but he neglected to tell them about it… and then he hired the players because the first group didn't return!

There was a shaft down into the abandoned tomb, a small shrine to Mars, and a series of catacombs, before reaching the deeper halls.  The entrance areas included a lair with giant spiders that gave the players a chance to battle some monsters and learn how their characters work.  The corpses of the previous adventurers littered the spider lair.

In the halls beyond the shrine to Mars was a pair of grandiose bronze doors leading to the main tomb, and a moss-covered side passage down to some natural caves.  The passage through the bronze doors was trapped with a deadly flame trap, but there was a simple puzzle in the hallway that involved interpreting murals and properly arranging the facings of some pillars to deactivate the trap.  The kids figured that one out quickly.  (Kids play Skyrim, so they had the puzzle solved before the adults started their questions).

The stairs beyond the bronze portals led to a false tomb and a portcullis trap, and a horrible battle involving a handful of "shadows".  5E characters are overpowered compared to earlier editions, and my group is large (8 players) so they were able to defeat the shadows by dipping into their powerful spells (especially something called 'guiding bolt' from the clerics).  With the shadows dispatched, the players returned to the portcullis trap and worked on getting it lifted.

The real tomb was actually down the moss-covered stairs, beyond some natural grottoes and across a bridge.  "Why have you come here", called a young woman from atop a raised platform where the ancient tomb sat.  "HE'S going to come back soon, and I can't stop him…"  The woman was the last survivor of the previous adventurers, a member of the Fraus thieves' guild.  Something changed about her countenance, and she picked up  an ancient bow with deadly determination, firing arrows with terrible accuracy across the grotto at the players.  The voice that rang out from her was no longer her own "You will be punished for violating this house of rest, and are unworthy to plunder my legacy."

The possessed thief pelted the characters with arrows while they ran across harrowing open ground to get to the raised dais where she waited.  As the first characters vaulted the stairs, she switched from bow and arrow to spear and shield, and started dueling with them in melee like some Spartan hoplite.

As the possessed thief got worn down, the sorcerer succeeded with a sleep spell.  The possessing spirt poured out of her mouth, battling them as a specter.  When some powerful blows dispersed the specter, it called out, "The invisible one has let loose the door to his house, and the guests have begun to leave.  What is now but a trickle will overwhelm as a roaring deluge…"

So that was the end of the short adventure I used to kick off the new campaign.  The players looted the tomb, and returned across the lake to the city of Fraus to rendezvous with Nicodemus, their patron.  The possessed thief, Calliope ("Cali") survived the possession, and was brought back to town too.  There was some silliness about returning one of the adventurer's backpacks back to Cali.  They gave the back pack to Cali.

Nicodemus wasn't a merchant after all, but was the leader of the thieves' guild, and happy one of his crew survived.  They worked out  a treasure split, the players were paid a fair share, and Nicodemus offered them another job.  The players knew the army was looking for some adventurers to go the frontier and help the commander of Fort Quintus deal with a goblin incursion from Arcadia; there were also post-bills all over Fraus promising "honor and glory in case of success" to any brave adventurers that went to Lunda (the site of my campaign's megadungeon), but they decided to keep working with Nicodemus, and go to Castra Lapis and take care of some deadbeats behind on payments.  It certainly didn't sound adventurous, but dark rumors swirled about Castra Lapis, and the players suspected there would be a deeper mystery in the small mining village.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Flat Plastic Miniatures - and GenCon

I'm off to Gencon in a couple of days after taking a couple of years off.  I don't have a rigidly structured agenda; a friend registered us for a bunch of roleplaying games, and I'm sure I'll get into one or two M:TG (Magic) tournaments with my buddy the Magic player.  We'll have 8+ dads and kids out there, so there will be plenty to do.  One of the things I'm going to check out in the expo area is the "Flat Plastic Miniatures" (FPM) booth.

I got out of collecting miniatures several years ago, and was using wooden blocks when we needed to use a grid vs "theater of the mind" style resolution.  I imagine other DM's are the same - based on the tactical complexity, and the amount of preparation that went into it, we'll decide on the spot whether to run combat on the grid or without miniatures.  I do mix both styles.

I discovered Flat Plastic Miniatures early this year and they've worked well.  Here's a shot from a recent game on how they look on the table:

They feature hand drawn artwork, laser printed onto thin plastic, and inserted into a plastic base.  The pieces feel way more durable than paper or cardboard, and they're a fraction of the cost of 3-D pre-painted miniatures (like the WOTC or Wizkids offerings).  FPM might end up $.25 to $.33 per figure, while the (admittedly) beautiful official Wizkids pieces are $3-$4 per figure.  So FPM is way more budget friendly (although not nearly as friendly as wooden blocks).  When all is said and done, I'll probably spend a few hundred dollars to get a gigantic mini collection with the flat minis, whereas an equivalent collection of painted figures would be minimum several thousand dollars (and, you know, a divorce).

I also like that Flat Plastic Minis are easy to store - I've got several hundred figures in the binder pictured below:

You can get this type of zippered binder at an office supply store.  Since the figures can easily slide out of the binder if it tilts upside down (a mini apocalypse), a zippered binder ensures you're not going to lose anything.  The sleeves are card sleeves, available at a game store or baseball card shop.  At some point the organization compulsion will take me over, and I'll put little label stickers on the sleeves to make it super organized.

Visiting the Flat Plastic Miniatures booth at Gencon is one of my Gencon goals.  They have a ton of sets I don't own, and maybe they'll have some Gencon deals?  I saw LOTFP will be there as well, and I'm sure I'll do a bunch of board game demos too.

Anyone else going, and what kind of stuff do you have planned?

Here's the link to the store for the guys that sell Flat Plastic Miniatures:  Arcknight.  The store doesn't seem completely up to date, as they've been doing various Kickstarters and so forth.  That's another reason I'm curious to see what's at their Gencon booth.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

5E Embraces Sandbox-Friendly XP?

Rewards affect your decision making.  They increase your motivation to do things.  The psychologists use terms like operant conditioning, and the theories have been leveraged by video game designers to create rewards-frameworks to keep you plugged in and playing. Reward-based thinking doesn't feel as obvious in the table top space, but it depends on how transparent the reward system is to the players.

Old school game systems feature an experience point system where one gold piece (gp) equals one experience point (xp).  Characters also get experience for fighting monsters.  The ratio of experience from gold, versus experience from monsters, tends to be 3 to 1 or even 4 to 1 - meaning 75% or 80% of experience points in an old school game comes from treasure.

Players figure this out really quickly - even new folks.  Consider the old school "Dwimmermount" game I was running last year. After a particularly long Dwimmermount session, with lots of combats and encounters, the players eagerly waited to hear if their characters advanced in level.  "Um, no, not this time fellas - you really didn't find any treasure on this delve, and that's where most of the experience comes from."  Changes were made.  The group prioritized getting a 'Locate Object' spell, and they used it in dungeon areas they cleared to help find hidden caches of treasure that were missed.  They backtracked to previously cleared areas.  Treasure was prioritized over fighting.  The nature of the reward influenced their behavior.

Fifth Edition is all about the fighting, at least by the book; apparently the fine print in the DMG suggests using other forms of XP, but it's not featured the way combat XP is featured.  5E's experience system has complicated my plan to run a free-form exploratory sandbox, knowing that the players are going to prioritize fighting everything in sight because that's how they get their treats.  I was surprised this week to see the latest "Unearthed Arcana" article was about an alternative experience point model for 5E:  Three-Pillar Experience.

I like this alternative XP system quite a bit - it formalizes giving experience for exploring and winning important social encounters.  UA materials are playtest level stuff, not finished products, but it's a good start.  The rules suggest giving exploration experience for recovering items and finding special locations.  Pundits in the OSR have frequently proposed methods of rewarding exploration as an end in itself, and now we have a workable version for 5E.  (Good job Mearls.  That guy has a warm spot in his heart for the OSR).  The Three-Pillars also has guidelines for giving out social experience for achieving roleplaying goals in the game, like getting the support of an important patron or antagonist.  I don't remember seeing this pop up in our space much, although it's not unheard of for DM's to give out some XP for 'defeating' monsters through diplomacy or guile.  Of course there's XP for the combat stuff, too.

Compared to an actual old school rules system, this Three-Pillars Experience design still puts a heavier emphasis on combat versus exploration or social, but it's step in the right direction.  An entire game session focused on intrigue, or wandering the wilds looking for the Lost City, is still going to let the players improve their experience totals.

There's still an open question whether monkeying with the XP system will actually change what player's do?  The reward system needs to be transparent and create a link between the behavior and the reward.  I believe all it will take is a few examples of pointing out that the players have earned experience when they discover legendary or fabled places, or recovered fabulous items, and the value of exploration and looting will come to the foreground in your 5E game.  Since 5E is what my players are currently preferring, I like anything that brings 5E closer to the values we espouse running old school sandboxes and megadungeons.

The alternative XP approach for 5E is "milestone" or "story-based" leveling.  I struggle wrapping my head around that one.  What is the causal link between character behavior and reward if it's based on a DM's arbitrary story awards?  "Do what I want you to do, follow my plotted sequence, and I will reward you with levels?"  That sounds awful, so I'm thinking it can't be right - clearly I have some bias.  I took a look to see how folks responded to "Three-Pillar XP", and Reddit and Enworld are full of people loving on the milestone-based leveling and eschewing the very concept of experience points.  So if anyone wants to offer a cogent defense for arbitrary leveling (perhaps in the comments) I'd love to hear the other side; the obvious reason that jumps to my mind is that the DM/author doesn't have time to run a normal paced campaign, and story-leveling gives them cover to power-up the group and get them where he/she wants them (fast).  (Like in an adventure path type of campaign where page count matters, but everyone still needs to be level 10 for the boss fight).

Regardless of all that, I'm glad to see 5E's stewards continue to develop rules to support playing the game like the old days.  (We might be playing 5E, but we still use a caller and a mapper, too).  UA recently had a new initiative system that had elements of weapon speed and segments, and it felt like a regular throwback to AD&D 1E.  That one worked well at the table, too, so it's on my list to discuss.  I've also heard there are some upcoming rules to make 5E a little grittier, some kind of "hard mode" that will be featured in Tomb of Annihilation.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Game On… Again

I ran some D&D this weekend.

I've been scratching notes about a homebrew setting, "Illyria", in my travel journal, and patiently waiting for a time when I'd be able to spring D&D back on my crew.  It's been quite a year so far, lots of 50-60 hour weeks, but the work assignment is stabilizing and I've only got a few more months to go before my schedule returns to a sane cadence.  No one's getting younger, so this weekend we kicked off a new game.

Players love the 5E.  About a month ago, I asked the crew if we should pick up an older campaign, play LOTFP, ACKS, or 5E, and the response was universal for 5E.  So I set to work establishing Illyria as a 5E sandbox type setting.

I don't think 5E adventures or encounters are anywhere near as easy to prepare as the beloved old school clones.  The rules on building encounters and planning experience stuff are byzantine, confusing, and too much work, particularly if your group is larger than the 4-5 characters the default rules assume you have at the table.

Luckily, there are plenty of smart people who've been playing 5E with reckless abandon towards player safety, ignoring the obtuse encounter building rules, and maintaining old school sensibilities in their 5E games.  I leveraged many of their ideas in preparing Illyria and will discuss them in the coming weeks.

We had 8 players for the first game night, and several more in the queue, so I'd like to run the game in an episodic manner, to support drop-in / drop-out, or even alternating weeks (and have half the group come each week).  Most of the players are dads and kids, so it's a basic fact that not everyone will make each session.  I've had success running episodic games that were just focused on a megadungeon, since it was easy to start and end every session in the nearby home base.  We'd just assemble a crew the following week based on who showed up on game night.  I'm still considering the best way to do that in a game featuring travel and a hex crawl - if you have experience, I'd love to hear how you did it.

That's enough statement of purpose for today.  In the coming weeks, you'll have the chance to learn about Illyria, meet the cast of characters, and see how I'm doing running 5E with as much old school panache as one can muster.

Oh, and here's a first draft of the Illyria map (I'll be changing it up, but this was good enough to get started):

Monday, February 6, 2017

Quantum Difficulty, An Example - Orcs of Brimstone Pass

I've had a whirlwind travel schedule the past week (Chicago, LA, then London, then Kent, back to London tomorrow...) so it's taken me longer than I'd like to post a follow up to the blog.  Theorycrafting is all well and good, but putting an idea down on paper as a concrete example is a much better vehicle to stress testing an idea to see if it has merit.

With that in mind, consider this example of "quantum difficulty", the proposal from last post, that games like Skyrim ensure "no wasted content" by allowing the game engine to scale aspects of a quest or dungeon along with the player's power level so a locale is significant regardless of when the player finds it.

I suffer putting humanoids into games; I'm always looking for ways to make them anything but knock-off humans in fuzzy man-suits living out in the wilds.  In a campaign several years ago (Gothic Greyhawk), I made orcs cauldron-born hell-spawn; witches and warlocks, lawful evil clerics, created ritual hellfires that let them pull wriggling larva out of the coals of the fire, and grow them into full-sized orcs in a cauldron filled with pigs-blood and offal.  Orcs in AD&D 1E were Lawful Evil, in line with these hellish origins - they are evil souls, reincarnated as orcs, and the pig's blood lends them their bizarre, porcine features.

For this hypothetical quantum difficulty problem, I've populated my sandbox with a location called Brimstone Pass, and the orcs are a bog standard orc tribe (except their origin is as above and there are no orc babies lying around), and there's a handful of warlocks and witches who stoke the hellfires and make more orcs.  The campaign features a version of the endless war between demons and devils, and the orcs are mining the Brimstone Mountains looking for the lost Demonomicon, to strike a blow against the demons.  They enslave nearby villages and force people to work in their mines and quarries.

Brimstone Pass and the Hellfire Orcs would appear right on the map from the beginning of the game, and the threat (and opportunity) of the location can be revealed in rumors right away.  Such a standard orc tribe (using AD&D's wilderness rules) would provide a challenge that could keep lower level adventurers busy for a long time - ambushing orc hunting parties, planning prisoner raids, hit and run tactics; various asynchronous warfare tactics to compensate for the character's lack of numbers and power.  However, by the time they hit the mid-levels and start having "Wands of Fireballs" and similar boom-sticks, a bunch of humanoids aren't much of a threat.  Fireball and Level 5 is the great shifting point.

The promise of Quantum Difficulty is that when I become so enamored with my idea - that Brimstone Pass and the Hellfire Orcs are absolutely brilliant, my bestest orc idea ever - it provides an option when higher level incarnations of the party finally pays attention to the malfeasance of those nasty orcs.  (It is fair to say no referee should become enamored with their ideas, but I am a weak example and hold ideas in too high favor).  The players have already surpassed the mid levels, or might even be high level characters.  Assuming this is the player's first foray into Brimstone Pass, the referee does some "quantum leveling", and voila - the witches and warlocks are suddenly mid-level or high level casters; the tribe has the services of a powerful Lawful Evil dragon; actual devils spawn from the Hellfire pits; a high level campaign against Brimstone Pass could involve some of the powerful devils from 1E, like a Balor wrapped around the mountain peak (Night on Bald Mountain style).

Consider some of the alternative ways to present Brimstone Pass.  I could present it as originally stated, a standard orc tribe, supplemented by some lower level evil clerics (the heretofore mentioned witches and warlocks).  If the players delay in dealing with the orcs until they're high level, so be it - they'll utterly destroy the lair with a furious magical assault and cleaving fighters, and enjoy the benefits of smashing a bunch of orcs when they're high level.  As I said, so be it; that's a perk of being high level, you get to smash level 1 humanoid tribes.  (And there's a message to you, Rudy - don't get so attached to your ideas, it's not 'actually' your game... time to straighten right out).

Alternatively, I'm so fixated with the idea of devils and high level casters and the Balor of Brimstone Pass and Mussorgsky, that I choose it to be a capstone location for the entire campaign like the Mines of Bloodstone adventure, and immediately craft it as a dangerous locale for all but the doughtiest warriors and wizards.  This is is fine, assuming I don't mind putting the content on the shelf until later in the campaign, and woe betides any low level characters that decide to assault Brimstone Pass... but that's why we foreshadow these things, no?  Players need to pick up on the signs, better think of their future, and realize the big devil from Night on Bald Mountain lives up there.

This is where a reflection on your own sandbox approach is worth considering; do you create sandbox locales in advance, knowing some of the sites will become obsolete as the player's become powerful and mighty?  Do you let your 6th-7th level guys go off and mug goblins, or take lunch money from the kobolds?  Or do you create hideously horrible locales in your sandbox right from the word go, knowing they spell instant death if a low level party misreads the signs and prosecutes a campaign against the locale?  Like putting Tomb of Horrors right outside the village?  (Which is kinda appealing, gotta say).

I'd submit that both approaches are interesting; it might seem like a waste of table top time when high level guys go out back and beat up some goblins, but there's value in letting the players flex their power and absolutely destroy a low level encounter site once in a while.  And who doesn't like having clearly marked danger zones right on the map as a skill tester?  For these reasons, I'm not sure I'd actually employ quantum difficulty - this is a hypothetical discussion, after all.  I can imagine circumstances where I have a vested interest in ensuring a locale is challenging (regardless of when the players encounter it) that I'd scale the location to fit the current campaign arc - low level, mid level, or high level.  The other alternative is you just don't put the thing in the sandbox until it's the "right time" for the players to encounter it - rumors of orcish raiding parties and villagers carried off in the night only crop up at the point of the campaign where you've built Brimstone Pass to exist as a fitting adventure site.  I tend to think most "just in time" referees don't bother with too much content creation in advance, so whatever they happen to make next is automagically a relevant encounter site for the party.  Imagine this, Goldilocks, everywhere you go, you run into dungeons that aren't too hot, and aren't too cold, but they're just right.  You have journeyed to the quantum world without realizing it.

Further, I would only consider something like Quantum Difficulty for wilderness locales; when I build those giant megadungeons with levels, the logic of "dungeon level = danger level" trumps all other considerations, and one must adhere strictly to the classic scheme.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Quantum Difficulty in the Sandbox

I continue to be impressed by the open world nature of Skyrim (a popular console video game); there are 350 or so discoverable locations in the wilds, and 150 hand crafted dungeons waiting to be explored.  Because it's an open world, the designers can't control the order in which you encounter the content; you could find a nearby dungeon early on, when you're low level, or keep missing it until you're powerful and skilled.  If they lock in the content to a certain level, they risk boring players of powerful characters when they waltz through an early dungeon that was discovered later than expected.  And they certainly don't want to block off certain dungeons by putting a sign out front, "low level monsters inside, wussy characters only..." or vice versa.  The designers need to ensure players get their money's worth and have a chance to encounter all of the setting content in a player-determined order.  Enter a concept I'm calling 'Quantum Difficulty'.  The difficulty level of a certain dungeon isn't fully "locked in" until it's observed by a player that discovers the dungeon and enters it.  Until that point, the dungeon exists in a realm of possibility, fluctuating through various potentialities until fixed in place by direct observation.  This is a technique we can borrow for our table top games.

First let's loop back to an earlier concept I called "the sandbox triangle".  I've done a lot of project management in my career, and traditional project management texts use a term called 'the iron triangle' - on a project, you can't adjust time, scope, or quality, without making changes to the other points of the triangle.  You can't build a bigger house without increasing the duration and cost, for instance.  It's similar to an axiom in product development - the product can be good, fast, or cheap, pick two.  It can be applied to RPG sandbox creation, the sandbox triangle.  You can make a very detailed sandbox right from the start (high quality, with a big investment of time).  Or you can do something sketched out at a high level, with a fraction of the time invested.  But the relationship between the points is inexorable.  You can't have high quality or high detail or give the players total freedom, without investment of a lot of time.

Many referees do "just in time" development.  They figure out where the players want to go next week at the end of the current session, and use the time in between game sessions to prepare "just in time".  Overall scope is kept down, and time invested up front is also kept down.  It's a pay as you go mentality; you can't cheat the triangle, but you can manage it.  The alternative is to invest a lot of time developing detailed locations, and then pushing the players to encounter the content so the time isn't wasted.

Quantum Difficulty provides a way to develop more content up front than pure "just in time" development, without falling into the trap of having to throw stuff out later that no longer fits the character levels.  It means planning in advance how you might scale a location to be an appropriate challenge for higher level characters.  It could be as simple as scaling the number of opponents, or use a more 'video game style' where the actual monsters change based on a hierarchy.  For instance, Skyrim has weapon-wielding Norse zombies called draugr; as you become more powerful, you'll run into restless draugr, then draugr wights, and finally draugr deathlords.  It's a bit corny, but works.  4E had shades of this style of monster scaling, whereas 5E's bounded accuracy makes it easier to just add on numbers to the encounter and scale horizontally instead of vertically.  5E clearly has quantum difficulty in the foreground - I've picked up a few 'Adventurer's League' adventures recently, and they provides explicit guides on scaling each encounter based on numbers and levels of the participants.  The adventurer's league provides guidelines on scaling the adventure within a narrow range of levels - scaling from a party of 2nd level characters to 4th level characters, for instance.  Quantum difficulty anticipates scaling across much greater ranges.

There are some important caveats to ensure this new power of "quantum difficulty" is used wisely.  First, it can't violate game knowledge or established facts.  There should be places established in the game world that are dangerous and deadly right from the start, and if low level characters choose to go there, they'll get squashed.  The vampire's tower, the demon-haunted ruins, and the dragon's lair, should still be fatal to low level characters.  Choices have consequences and quantum difficulty won't save the players from themselves. The key to having an engaging sandbox is sharing information so the players make informed decisions about where to go and what to do.  Quantum difficulty can't undermine this core principle.

Quantum difficulty shouldn't scale everything, either.  Bandits are still bandits, and the players need to be able to smash weak opponents and feel a sense of real progress as they level up in the world.  "Bosses" and key encounters can get scaled to provide appropriate challenges, but mooks are still mooks.  Games where 15th level characters run into 15th level town guards drive me nuts.

However, the pros outweigh the cons.  You should populate the typical sandbox with 30-40 or so points of interest, and can pre-build maps and adventure sites, confident that you have a method for adjusting the difficulty when the players decide to visit the locale, without violating any principles of fair play.  It also lets you put more locations right on the initial map for the players to consider, and that's a powerful draw for me.  Particularly with more casual gamers, I like providing a detailed wilderness map with points of interest right on the map; using game time to make the players draw a map is one of my least favorite activities, since it's a 1 to 1 discussion between ref and mapper, and gives other players a reason to drift or get sucked into side conversations.  I try to limit it to dungeon exploration only.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Matters of System

I've got a few games running right now, using published settings, but the real thing I'm looking forward to doing this year is campaign development - picking an idea and getting back into the world of homebrew campaigns, either starting something new, or picking up an older idea again.  However, I like a bunch of different rules sets and frequently switch between campaigns.  How many of you guys have run the same rules for multiple years, versus switching rules when you start the next campaign?

Rules sets can be adjusted to favor the style of play you prefer, but I still get inspired by the differences inherent in the rules; mechanics help underline the focus of the game and what's important.  Just like picking the right tool for a job around the house, the right set of rules makes the referee's job easier, too.  Here are the rule sets I'm considering when pondering the upcoming campaign.

ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King System)

ACKS is a retro clone built on the OGL as a spiritual successor to BECMI (the basic, expert, companion, master, and immortal rules published for Basic D&D in the 80's and early 90's).  BECMI envisioned a rich campaign world beyond the dungeon, and included rules for dominions, wars, and rulership, as well as expanding basic D&D to include advanced facets of play like planar travel and artifacts.  ACKS assumes that exploring dungeons and lairs will always be a part of play, but provides procedures for creating lair-filled hex crawls, populating a campaign world, and very detailed guidelines for players on crafting items and creating spells, build domains, establish guilds, and raise armies.  ACKS expands the game from just controlling a character in a dungeon, to include a character shaping the course of the world.

Of course, the referee needs to have a specific campaign vision in mind to put in the overhead to build a campaign setting that will eventually support intrigue and conquest; it has to be something the players want to do as well.  ACKS is almost a throw-back to the Chainmail days and the earliest campaigns, as it anticipated characters will recover tons of wealth from their dungeoneering, and invest piles of gold into building castles and armies.

LOTFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)

Anyone paying attention to the OSR is familiar with Jim LOTFP's penchant for pushing the envelope with his Heavy Metal magazine style of art and promotion.  Because why not, right?  The inmates rule the OSR asylum, and it's fantastic.  But beneath LOFTP's occasional boob and dismembered corpse is a streamlined and trim interpretation of the old BX rules chassis for Moldvay's 1980's D&D and redbox.  LOTFP has laser-focused niche protection for the main character classes (fighter, cleric, magic user, and specialist), a form of 'bounded accuracy' since no one beyond the fighter improves at fighting ability.  It also has my favorite d6-based skill system for D&D.  (Jeff Rients recently covered a comparison of Moldvay and LOTFP in articles called LOTFP vs BX; sadly they're not labeled for easy linking).  The implied setting of LOTFP is the early modern period in a milieu based on historical Europe, featuring elements of weird fiction and horror.

A 'feature' of LOTFP is that it doesn't include a bestiary; monsters are expected to be unique and terrifying, for the most part.  Jim has threatened to release an updated Ref Book for the past few years that includes more guidelines on weird monsters and running campaigns.

5E (Good Old Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition style)

Wizards of the Coast made an effort to reached out to old school players during their playtest of 5e, and delivered a version of the game that featured smaller stat blocks, 'theater of the mind' old school combat, and a play experience built on combat, exploration, and dungeoneering.  5E continues to sell very well, and appears to be growing the table top hobby in new ways with live streaming of games and celebrity games.  5E is also the game new players encounter in hobby and book stores; the brand appears strong and going well.

As an old school player, there are some issues that leave me cold.  Characters are really powerful, even from level 1, and the game implies a high fantasy, high powered world where magic is ubiquitous - at least among player characters.  5E really only emulates one type of setting well - a high powered D&D setting!  It's built on 40 years of self-referential lore and development, and has pretty much become it's own genre of fantasy.  No wonder the Forgotten Realms is the default.

However, players seem to love the system.  Going from 'zero to hero' in the old school style is an acquired taste for players, especially kids, and 5E's high powered laser clerics and zappy wizards are more in line with modern video games.  Not every player likes having disposable first level characters that can be killed by a house cat and some good dice rolls.  5E character development includes the creation of personality facets like ideals, bonds, and flaws; old school characters get developed through play, and not conceived all at the beginning.  I've noticed that younger players enjoy imagining that stuff right out of the gate, and it's improved their ability to roleplay their characters at the table.  I need to get some Curse of Strahd game reports going - 5E has a lot going for it from the player's perspective.

Unfortunately, I really don't like the Forgotten Realms - a little too bog standard fantasy.  A personal challenge is whether I could I structure a satisfying campaign setting using 5E when I'm done running Curse of Strahd.  Maybe an older idea like Taenarum, my megadungeon featuring the Greek Underworld, would work as a high magic, high powered setting?  Either way, the setting needs to be purpose built for zap zap pew pew style D&D.

Regardless of which system I land on, I'm sure it will involve a healthy amount of hex crawling and wandering the wilds; both LOTFP or 5E would need to borrow from other systems to accomplish that, as neither mechanically supports it today (either through lack of bestiary or lack of procedures).  I'm still loving the Skyrim experience of free-range discovery of ruins, caves, and enemy holds, and want to see that expressed in a table top game!  The campaign will feature a large-ish megadungeon as well.  I'll reflect in the near future and decide if I should revive an older idea (Taenarum, the Black City, or Harrow Home) or start something fresh and new.

Is this common - do you switch rules per campaign, go for a best fit for mechanics, or use the same core for each game and just make it work? 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Tabletop Ideas from Skyrim

It only took five years for my kids to convince me to start playing Skyrim.

Since I spent the past year and a half sequestered as an academic, lots of family stuff and hobbies fell by the wayside - limited vacations, no GenCon attendance, things like that.  Each kid extracted a solemn promise to do something cool over the holidays; my daughter wanted to spend an afternoon at Barnes and Noble, hanging out at Starbucks and talking about life; my youngest wanted me to learn Madden '17 and try to challenge his crown; the oldest has been obsessed with getting me to finally play Skyrim and 'get it'.  With the master's degree safely behind me, I took the plunge over the holidays and got the Skyrim special edition version for Xbox One.  I've been enjoying the "open world" nature of the game, and it’s hard not to reflect on how we can adapt some techniques to enhance our table top games.

If you're reading this post based on the title, there's a good chance you know what Skyrim is already (or played one of the earlier incarnations).  If your luddite tendencies have kept you cloistered from modern video games - and who can blame you, really? - this brief video review provides a decent summary of the game and game world:  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Legendary Edition Overview - Newegg TV

Now that I've seen enough to become a 23rd level high elf destruction mage, arch mage of the college of Winterhold, and member of the Stormcloak rebellion, here are various sandbox techniques that I plan on borrowing next time I do a homebrew sandbox game:

Through Line Quests
Regardless of what minor quest or story line the player is pursuing, there are some overarching "big threats" in the campaign setting that create verisimilitude as the player traverses the sandbox.  Examples in Skyrim include a rebellion between the Stormcloaks (rebel Nords) and the Imperials from the south; a plague of vampires and the presence of the Dawnguard, fanatic vampire hunters; the return of the dragons and the threat of a powerful, apocalyptic dragon lord.  Regardless of what you're doing, you might encounter patrols of Imperials and offers to join the Legion; voracious vampires and vampire thralls attack the towns at night; dragons wheel in the distant skies.

Thanes, Lordships, and Property
There are a half dozen major towns across Skyrim; each one is led by a Jarl, and there's a path to become a thane or lord in the Jarl's hall through service.  This opens up the opportunity to gain a follower, buy a house, or develop a homestead land out in the wilds and build your own fortified manor and hall.  After all, you need a nice wall to hang all those trophies!

Guild Memberships
There are a handful of major organizations where the player can climb the ranks - think of it like the thieve's guild, but covering other classes  - so far I've encountered the mages, the assassins, and the companions (the companions are Norse mercenaries that can turn into werewolves).

Discovered Backstory
NPCs disburse elements of the history and setting through brief one sentence blurbs, like tweets, limiting the narrative dumps.  Books are a much richer source of backstory - you're constantly finding books and notes in ruins and tombs; they tell history, and provide hints and clues on negotiating the current dungeon, too.  You can ignore them if reading is tedious.  Dwimmermount used this technique to great effect, and Jim LOTFP pioneered it way back in Hammers of the God, where the secret shame of the dwarves could only be discovered if you worked through the library of books.

Each town has a distinct character, lots of little subplots and stories, and a number of common services;  an inn, a merchant or armorer, and an apothecary or alchemist.  Plus the local lord and guard.  There's a lot of value in putting more effort into the towns in your game.

Quest Overload and Organization
Skyrim overloads you with things to do, forcing you to prioritize your own story arc.  However, all of the quest ideas and rumors are conveniently organized in a journal.  As a busy adult who only plays once a week, it's really helpful to return to a game log and see my current options as a memory refresher.

In my Dwimmermount game, I made some play aids to help the players keep track of quests and lost knowledge.  I can see myself generalizing it further to include all sorts of quests and rumors that get picked up.  As old school DM's we sometimes view 'note taking' and memory as skill testers, which runs counter to casual, beer and pretzel D&D playing; if the setting is going to deluge the players with options and things to do, help them keep track of the options with a journal of some sorts.  When you show up to game at the end of a bruising 40 hour week, the last thing you want is to have to recall obscure parts of The Silmarillion in order to play.  (Or Forgotten Realms lore).

Level Scaling the Extreme Sandbox
This one is a bit controversial, but Skyrim uses what I'm calling "quantum difficulty" - the levels of ruins and dungeons get established when you enter them the first time.  It's not 100% level scaling, or else you wouldn't feel like you're making any progress.  For instance, a wolf that used to be a dangerous fight can now be dispatched with a single blow.  But a newly discovered barrow, which might have contained Norse undead (draugr) when the character was low level, will feature more dangerous draugr variants if you first discover it as a higher level character.

I'm getting more pragmatic as I get older.  If you're going to present a plethora of choices right up front, there might be an opportunity cost to choosing one thing, and ignoring something else.  But if the dungeons aren't going away, the players may loop back to an earlier rumor and pick it up when they're more powerful.  For instance, the early game has the players hearing about a group of "vicious bandits" that have made travel north in High Saddle Pass difficult.  The players travel in the opposite direction and have a series of engaging adventures somewhere else.  When they return to the north and go after the bandits now, assuming the problem persists, maybe that group of zero level men and humans they might have encountered as level 1 characters is actually a mixed band of humanoids and ogres that can challenge a higher level party.  Is that palette shifting, or just-in-time development, because the nature of the bandits was never fully established in prior sessions?  I'm choosing the latter.

However, there are a couple of things I haven't been happy with in Skyrim, but these are issues you can address on the tabletop:

Suspended Quests
You can be engaging with an apparently time sensitive quest (example:  go ambush the evil guys when they cross the bridge near the town) but there's nothing stopping you from sleeping for the night, selling some gear, and heading out to the bridge a few days later.  Whenever you pick up the quest, now is the time the bad guys happen to be  crossing the bridge.  Ouch.

The game is full of shrines to the gods (Divines) and the demons of Skyrim (Daedra).  There's nothing stopping you from swearing allegiance to a Divine for one quest, and then doing something terrible to win a Daedric artifact the next quest.  For that matter, NPCs and characters don't pay that much attention, either; you can swear yourself to Meridia, the goddess/daedra of Light, and wield her holy sword, Dawnbreaker, but a priest isn't likely to know the difference, and there's no problem joining a quest on behalf of Meridia's arch enemy next game session (thanks for the fact check on Mara vs Meridia, +Grey Knight).  Just about the only thing that gets you in any trouble is performing a public crime, especially with guards around.

I understand that in the video game context, all of these quest lines are just "content", and the designers want to maximize your ability to experience all of the content without having to create a new character.  It's a bad video game experience to make choices that completely close other quests. However, in the table top, we don't have the same considerations and can handle both suspended quests and natural consequences in a way that reinforces the setting.

Overall though, I've gotten a lot of good tabletop ideas by playing and observing Skyrim - even if it is 5-6 years later than the rest of you.  Adventurer Conqueror King would make a fine campaign system for a Skyrim style sandbox, since it envisions crafting, homesteading, economics, demographics, rulership and guild establishment - lots of world-building stuff that enhance the campaign side of play in addition to exploration and combat.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Mr Strahd goes to Innistrad

Death comes on blood-stained wings… that's a theme from last summer's Magic card game setting, Shadows Over Innistrad, as the angelic protectors of the plane succumb to madness, stoking the fires of inquisition and oppression.  I knew when Wizards created a guide for placing your Curse of Strahd campaign in Innistrad, this is something I would make happen in 2017.  Curse of Strahd is far and away the best thing for 5E, a sprawling horror-themed sandbox - highly recommend checking it out, if you haven't.

Here’s why ditching Barovia is a good idea.  First, it lets me place the campaign in a setting built around Gothic horror tropes without needing to shoehorn Forgotten Realmsians (ie, Ren-Fest escapees) through The Mists.  A regular Strahd campaign would have the players making setting-appropriate characters for Ren-Fair-Land, backgrounds and ties to various Realmsian organizations like the Emerald Tree Huggers and Gauntlet Knights and Gangster Zhents, just to shunt them off to Dracula-land where all that background becomes immediately irrelevant.  It sounds like I'm hating on the Realms; they're actually just fine for a High Fantasy game, and the 5E version does its job as a default setting.  I don't need 'em for my vampire-bashing game.

Wizards provided a handy guide for putting your 5E game in Innistrad:  Planeshift Innistrad.  There are no demi-humans; it's a human-centric setting with characters from the different provinces getting background abilities in lieu of demi-human abilities.  There are probably 1,000 cool pieces of artwork for Innistrad from years of Magic sets; a fair number have been collected into The Art of Innistrad, which also provides a guide to the plane (and takes the place of a gazetteer or campaign guide).  I've really enjoyed the art book.

On the plane of Innistrad, horrors stalk the shadows and scratch at doors in the night. Humanity is beset on all sides: vampires thirst for human blood, werewolves live for the thrill of the hunt, the restless spirits of the dead haunt the living, and no corpse is safe from reanimation at the hands of cruel necromancers or cunning scientists

Unfortunately, Wizards of the Coast doesn't make maps for their Magic planes.  I went ahead and created my own version of Innistrad, posted above.

We kicked off the campaign last week, so I'll portray the setting as the campaign moves along.  The valley of Barovia becomes the Outland Vales of Stensia, in the far upper left of the map, with Barovia and Vallaki (two villages in Curse of Strahd) becoming Shadowgrange and Lammas, beneath the shadow of Castle Maurer (instead of Castle Ravenloft).